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The birthplace of Robusta coffee

Interview - July 10, 2014
As the birthplace of Robusta coffee, coffee production is incredibly important to the Ugandan economy, and inextricably linked to its culture. The Uganda Coffee Development Authority is the body in charge of promoting and improving the coffee industry, and its Managing Director Mr. Henry Ngabirano talks to United World about the challenges of doing so.
We would like to know more about the person behind the institution. If you can tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started to get involve in the coffee sector. When did you become MD of this Institution?

Please comment on a brief history of the coffee, the different types of Robusta coffee and about its uniqueness.

Uganda is both the source of River Nile and the birthplace of Robusta coffee. Unlike Arabica coffee, which varieties are known to have been introduced to Uganda for commercial purposes, Robusta coffee was found naturally growing in the forests in the Lake Victoria crescent. Uganda grows both varieties (Robusta and Arabica) but we are more renowned for the Robusta where Nganda and Erecta are the major varieties grown.
Ugandan Robusta has very unique intrinsic quality attributes that are largely attributed to varieties and conditions it grows. Robusta coffee grows at very high altitude for many other Robusta and sometimes Arabica coffee. Since Robusta was never introduced, then it grows in its natural setting, which provides best natural conditions for growth. Ugandan Robusta is known for the perfect balance of sweet and bitter attributes.

Uganda is the second producer of coffee in Africa. However all this coffee is exported through Kenya to the European Union raw and not too many people know about the existence of Ugandan 100% Coffee. What needs to be done to take full advantage of Uganda’s coffee production, increase its value along the value chain and marketing it properly?

Uganda is indeed the biggest exporter of coffee in Africa and actually produces more coffee than the rest of the East African (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) sister countries combined. Uganda coffee has for a long time been used in blends where the bulk of the coffee traded globally falls. About 70 percent of the coffee traded globally is used in blends and hence not traced to any origin. Uganda had also been known for producing Robusta, which for a long time has not been differentiated in the market. In the past few years Uganda has been at the forefront in the Robusta differentiation process and I am glad that the consumers are now agreeable to the idea of differentiated Robusta.
We have to pursue the question of differentiation more seriously because it where the greatest value lies. Given the small scale holding that characterizes coffee production in Uganda, farmer aggregation and organization is the basic approach to increase value along the value chain and increase the farmer reputation index. This will make the farmer move along the value chain without any hindrances or biases.

What are the biggest challenges that the sector is currently facing? Please elaborate in the need of infrastructure development, price volatility issues…

The coffee industry like any other industry faces challenges of various forms, macroeconomic, global and industry or crop challenges. On macroeconomic nature, insufficient road and rail transport systems is a major challenge. Coffee and especially Arabica coffee is grown at high elevation where the transportation network is not quite developed. At global level, the challenge is mainly price volatility where a country like Uganda is not adequately positioned to manage price volatility even if there are mechanisms available to manage the price risk elsewhere. We are therefore looking a simple price risk management tools (price guarantee systems) that can be employed. Climate change is also an issue we see as global challenge. The challenge that I see as regional is the long transit time it takes for African coffee takes to get into the market including Europe and Asia, which are nearer to us. It takes longer for cargo to move from East Africa to Europe than the Americas even if we are actually nearer to Europe. The commodity specific challenges are mainly pests and diseases in nature. New diseases or the reemergence of old ones sometimes take very long for the scientists to prescribe a cure that can be used by the Ugandan farmers. The time required by a scientist/researcher to provide a solution and farmer’s desire to have the problem solved quickly are sometimes difficult to reconcile.

Around 32% of Uganda’s population is related with coffee production, possible the biggest employer of the country. If you were a local producer, what you would ask your Government, what you would ask Uganda Coffee Development Authority? How is the government stimulating the industry and putting attention in the technology that the industry needs?

I would probably ask the same questions being asked today which are generally about production improvement especially the need to have high yielding and disease resistant varieties, have policies that facilitate easy access and affordability of inputs like fertilizers and disease control chemicals, invest more in water for production systems (irrigation) and mechanization. I would advocate for market enlargement through promotion and negotiation for more preferential treatment. I think globalization shouldn’t assume that all players are at the same level. There will always be the young that have to be supported like we support and encourage children to walk. One size fits all assumption should not be applicable all the time.

This publication if for the first African Leaders Summit in Washington. 47 Heads of State will attend the summit including your President. What do you want to tell Leaders and the United States audience, investors and possible partners?
I don’t know what is on the agenda for the Leaders but would be great if their discussions included factors that stimulate coffee production and productivity, improving farmer coffee incomes and sustainable coffee production. The global coffee industry is rightly demanding for more and more sustainable coffee production systems including environmental friendliness whose standards might not be affordable/attainable by the small-scale farmers because they don’t yet earn enough from coffee to meet the standards. So Governments must help in some of these factors especially water and soil management. To the American people I would remind them of the friendly and hard working Ugandan people and reward them by drinking Ugandan coffee. To the investors I would draw their attention to the possible partners in the name of farmers who have an incredible resource and call for partnership in translating this resource “coffee” into absolute value for the benefit of both partners. The gap in share of revenue generated by coffee between growers and consumers must reduced.

If you could choose something to brand Uganda, that unique object or image that will survive in the retina of every tourist, every businessman…what would it be?

Coffee Coffee Coffee…It would be this pleasurable drink that originated from Uganda and which has a strong tradition and culture in Uganda. While tourists might come to Uganda for different reasons, every tourist everyday might invariably use coffee. Source of river Nile and origin of coffee.